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Khashoggi dsappearance: Turkey, US put pressure on Saudi Arabia

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Khashoggi is a former government adviser who fled Saudi Arabia in September 2017 and lived in the US fearing arrest back home.

 

Istanbul, Oct 11 (AFP) Turkey and the United States on Thursday ratcheted up the pressure on Saudi Arabia to explain how a journalist vanished after entering its Istanbul consulate last week, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urging the release of CCTV footage from the mission.

The Washington Post, which Khashoggi wrote for, added to the still unresolved mystery by reporting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered an operation to “lure” the critical journalist back home.

Khashoggi, a Saudi national whose articles have criticised the prince, has not been seen since October 2 when he went to the consulate in Istanbul to obtain official documents for his upcoming marriage.

Turkish officials have said he was killed — reportedly by a 15-man “assassination team” that arrived on two planes — but Riyadh denies that.

The disappearance has captured international headlines and threatens to harm Saudi’s relations with both Ankara and Washington, as well as damage efforts by Prince Mohammed to improve the country’s image.

Erdogan challenged Saudi Arabia to provide CCTV images to back up its account that Khashoggi had left the consulate safely, indicating he did not find the current Saudi explanations sufficient.

“Is it possible there were no camera systems in a consulate, in an embassy?” he asked.

“If a bird flew, or a fly or a mosquito appeared, the systems would capture this; they (Saudi Arabia) have the most cutting-edge systems,” he was quoted as saying.

The consulate said CCTV cameras were not working that day and dismissed the murder claims as “baseless”.

The case is also threatening the strong relationship the Trump administration has built with Prince Mohammed, who wants to turn the oil-rich conservative kingdom into a hub for innovation and reform.

The two sides have worked together in confronting Iran despite growing concern over the prince’s campaign against dissidents, which critics say has revealed the true face of his rule.

In a reversal from Washington’s initial low-key response, President Donald Trump expressed determination to get to the bottom of the matter.

“We can’t let it happen. And we’re being very tough and we have investigators over there and we’re working with Turkey and frankly we’re working with Saudi Arabia,” Trump said in an interview with “Fox and Friends”.

However, a Turkish diplomatic source quoted by the state-run Anadolu news agency denied US investigators had been tasked to work on the case.

And Trump later said the United States was not limiting arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the case. “They’re going to take that money and spend it in Russia or China or someplace else,” he said.

Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary of key Saudi ally and trade partner, Britain, told AFP there would be “serious consequences” if the allegations were true.

Saudi Arabia also dropped a bid to join the world’s club of French-speaking countries, The International Organisation of the Francophonie (OIF).

Khashoggi is a former government adviser who fled Saudi Arabia in September 2017 and lived in the US fearing arrest back home.

In his columns for the Washington Post and comments elsewhere, he was critical of some policies of Mohammed bin Salman as well as Riyadh’s role in the war in Yemen.

While unnamed Turkish officials quoted in the media have been giving sometimes macabre details of the alleged murder, Erdogan has so far been more circumspect.

Erdogan said it would “not be right” to comment yet but said he had “concerns”.

“It’s not possible for us to stay silent regarding an incident like this,” he said.

Human Rights Watch urged Prince Mohammed to “release all evidence and information” concerning Khashoggi’s status Turkish authorities have been given permission to search the consulate — Saudi sovereign territory — but this has not yet taken place.

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US airstrike in Somalia kills 52 al-Shabab extremists

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Johannesburg | The US military says it has carried out an airstrike in Somalia that killed 52 al-Shabab extremists in response to an attack on Somali forces.

The US Africa Command statement says the airstrike occurred on Saturday near Jilib in Middle Juba region.

The US says Somali forces had come under attack by a “large group” of the al-Qaida-linked extremists.

The statement does not say how many Somali forces were killed or wounded. There are no reports of Americans killed or wounded.

Al-Shabab controls large parts of rural southern and central Somalia and continues to carry out high-profile attacks in the capital, Mogadishu, and elsewhere. The group claimed responsibility for the deadly attack on a luxury hotel complex in Kenya’s capital on Tuesday.

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Fuel pipeline blaze in Mexico kills at least 73

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Tlahuelilpan (Mexico) | An explosion and fire in central Mexico killed at least 73 people after hundreds swarmed to the site of an illegal fuel-line tap to gather gasoline amid a government crackdown on fuel theft, officials said.

Hidalgo state governor Omar Fayad announced that the toll had increased to 73 after the discovery of five additional bodies.

The blast — which Fayad said has injured 74 people — occurred near Tlahuelilpan, a town of 20,000 people about an hour’s drive north of Mexico City.

As soldiers guarded the devastated, still-smoking scene, forensic specialists in white suits worked among the blackened corpses — many frozen in the unnatural positions in which they had fallen — and grim-eyed civilians stepped cautiously along in a desperate search for missing relatives.

The pungent smell of fuel hung in the air. Fragments of burnt clothing were strewn through the charred brush.

When the forensic workers began attempting to load corpses into vans to be transported to funeral homes, some 30 villagers tried to stop them. They demanded their relatives’ bodies, saying funeral homes were too expensive.

The bodies were ultimately taken to a morgue, authorities said.

On Friday, when authorities heard that fuel traffickers had punctured the pipeline, an army unit of about 25 soldiers arrived and attempted to block off the area, Defense Secretary Luis Crescencio Sandoval told reporters.

But the soldiers were unable to contain the estimated 700 civilians — including entire families — who swarmed in to collect the spilled gasoline in jerrycans and buckets, witnesses said.

The armed soldiers had been moved away from the pipeline to avoid any risk of confrontation with the crowd when the blast occurred, some two hours after the pipeline was first breached, Sandoval said.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist who took office only weeks ago, traveled to the scene on early Saturday.

He did not fault the soldiers, saying, “The attitude of the army was correct. It is not easy to impose order on a crowd.” He vowed to continue fighting the growing problem of fuel theft.

“I am deeply saddened by the suffering in Tlahuelilpan,” Lopez Obrador wrote on Twitter. He called on his “whole government” to extend assistance.

The US Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, tweeted that her department “stands ready to assist the first responders and the Mexican government in any way possible.” Video taken in the aftermath showed screaming people fleeing the scene as an enormous fire lit up the night sky.

“I went just to see what was happening, and then the explosion happened. I rushed to help people,” Fernando Garcia, 47, told AFP. “I had to claw through pieces of people who had already been burned to bits.”

The tragedy comes during a highly publicized federal government war on fuel theft, a problem that cost Mexico an estimated 3 billion in 2017.

Acting attorney general Alejandro Gertz described the latest disaster as “intentional” because “someone caused that leak. And the fire was a consequence of the crime.” But he acknowledged that investigators would be hampered by the fact that “the people closest to the explosion died.”

Federal and state firefighters and ambulances run by state oil company Pemex rushed to help victims with burns and take the injured to hospitals.

Local medical facilities struggled to cope with the flood of arriving victims, said AFP correspondents at the scene.

The fire had been brought under control by around midnight Friday, the security ministry said.

Pemex said it was also responding to another fire at a botched pipeline tap in the central state of Queretaro, though in that case there were no victims.

Mexico is regularly rocked by deadly explosions at illegal pipeline taps, a dangerous but lucrative business whose players include powerful drug cartels and corrupt Pemex insiders.

Fayad said that two hours after the pipeline was punctured, “we were informed that there had been an explosion” and the flames “were consuming everything around.” About 15 oil pipeline explosions and fires causing more than 50 fatalities each have occurred around the world since 1993.

Most were in Nigeria, where in 1998 more than 1,000 people died in such a blast. A fire after a pipeline rupture in Brazil killed more than 500 people in 1984.

The tragedy comes as anti-corruption crusader Lopez Obrador presses implementation of a controversial fuel theft prevention plan.

The government has shut off major pipelines until they can be fully secured and deployed the army to guard Pemex production facilities.

But the strategy to fight the problem led to severe gasoline and diesel shortages across much of the country, including Mexico City, forcing people to queue for hours — sometimes days — to fill up their vehicles.

The president, who took office on December 1, has vowed to keep up the fight and asked Mexicans to be patient.

At the scene, some locals blamed the shortages for the tragedy.

“A lot of people arrived with their jerrycans because of the gasoline shortages we’ve had,” said Martin Trejo, 55, who was searching for his son, one of those who had gone to collect the leaking fuel.

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British PM faces defeat in historic Brexit deal vote

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London | British Prime Minister Theresa May faces crushing defeat in a historic vote in parliament on Tuesday over the Brexit deal she has struck with the European Union, leaving the world’s fifth biggest economy in limbo.

With just over two months to go until the scheduled Brexit date of March 29, Britain is still bitterly divided over what should happen next and the only suspense over the vote is the scale of May’s defeat.

The British leader’s last-minute appeals to MPs appear to have fallen on deaf ears and how much she loses by could determine whether she tries again, loses office, delays Brexit — or if Britain even leaves the EU at all.

“When the history books are written, people will look at the decision of this house… and ask: did we deliver on the country’s vote to leave the European Union,” May asked MPs on the eve of the vote, expected after 1900 GMT.

Opposition to the deal forced May to postpone the vote in December in the hope of winning concessions from Brussels.

EU leaders have offered only a series of clarifications but German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Strasbourg on Tuesday raised the possibility of further talks while ruling out a full re-negotiation of the text.

“Everything has been done in recent weeks and months to signal our interest in a positive decision,” Maas said.

“However, I am sceptical that the agreement can be fundamentally reopened once again,” he said.

The vote is the climax of over two years of intense national debate after the shock Brexit referendum of 2016 — a result mostly pro-Remain MPs have struggled with.

Hardline Brexiteers and Remainers oppose the agreement for different reasons and many fear it could lock Britain into an unfavourable trading relationship with the EU.

Pro- and anti-Brexit campaigners rallied outside parliament ahead of the vote. One placard read “EU Membership is the Best Deal”, another said: “No Deal? No Problem!” Uncertainty over Brexit has hit the British economy hard.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders lobby group warned MPs that Britain crashing out of the EU would be “catastrophic”.

Financial markets will also be watching the result closely, with several currency trading companies roping in extra staff for the vote and at least one putting a cap on trades to avoid excessive currency movements.

“Today’s vote is a foregone conclusion so sterling is unlikely to move significantly,” said Rebecca O’Keeffe, an analyst with online trader Interactive Investor.

“The fireworks will happen after today — when it is clear what happens next,” she said, predicting that a decision not to leave the EU would send sterling shooting up while a no-deal Brexit would send it down to record lows.

Rather than heal the divisions exposed by the Brexit referendum, the vote has reignited them. Pro-European MPs campaigning to force a second vote say they have faced death threats.

Brexit supporters have also voiced growing frustration with what they see as parliamentary blockage of their democratic vote.

Criticism of the deal is focused on an arrangement to keep open the border with Ireland by aligning Britain with some EU trade rules, if and until London and Brussels sign a new economic partnership which could take several years.

Sammy Wilson, Brexit spokesman with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Northern Irish party on whom May relies for her Commons majority, told the BBC his party would not be forced into backing the deal by fears over the border.

“We fought (against) a terrorist campaign (in order) to stay part of the United Kingdom,” he said, evoking Northern Ireland’s past conflict.

“We are not going to allow bureaucrats in Brussels to separate us from the rest of the United Kingdom.” His boss Arlene Foster stressed “we cannot accept the backstop…it does violence to the union.” Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said May must call an election if she loses on Tuesday and has threatened to hold a confidence vote in her government if she does not.

In the event of a defeat, the government must set out what happens next by Monday at the latest.

Speculation is growing on both sides of the Channel that whatever the outcome May could ask to delay Brexit.

But a diplomatic source told AFP any extension would not be possible beyond June 30, when the new European Parliament will be formed.

The withdrawal agreement includes plans for a post-Brexit transition period to provide continuity until a new relationship is drawn up, in return for continued budget contributions from London.

Without it, and if there is no delay, Britain will sever 46 years of ties with its nearest neighbours with no agreement to ease the blow. (AFP) KUN

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